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by Theron Martin,

Sword Art Online

Novel 16 - Alicization Exploding

Sword Art Online Novel 16
With the disintegration of the Eastern Gate, the battle against the Dark Territory forces begins in earnest. While Alice waits as the human realm's trump card against magical attacks, other Integrity Knights engage the initial waves of goblins, orcs, and giants. Sacrifices must be made on both sides, and one young Integrity Knight has to find his mettle when the girls watching after Kirito are endangered, but the situation shifts dramatically when the humans learn about Vecta's existence; he's dedicated to finding the Priestess of Light: Alice. A bold new plan emerges for venturing deep into the Dark Territory to draw away most of the attackers, which brings Alice uncomfortably close to one agent from the outside world, and giving Asuna the opportunity to shine. Meanwhile, in the outside world, Yui catches wind of another angle to Gabriel's nefarious scheme.

After plodding along through the middle parts of the first arc, the series has dropped bombshell developments in the last two volumes, ones which shake the overall fabric of the series to its core. This volume, which will probably serve as the source material for the second quarter of the animated version's second half, continues that trend. In fact, the big twist in the final few pages of this volume is world-shaking on the same level as the scene which ended the first arc, and should, in fact, have equally big impact on the story direction. I honestly cannot imagine anyone who reads this volume to conclusion not being eager to see what comes next.

But first let's clarify what this volume is and is not. The front cover art, which depicts Asuna in the form that she assumes in Underworld, is in some senses a massive spoiler about who she's going to be, as anyone familiar with the setting to this point can probably make an educated guess on what character that is even before the glossy art pages at the front of the novel spill the beans. Still, that the super-account she uses would be that role makes enough sense that it is not a big surprise, so the bigger issue is that the picture actually misrepresents the novel. Yes, Asuna arriving in Underworld is one of the story's two most pivotal developments, but it does not come until more than two-thirds of the way through the novel, and even once she does appear, only a bit more than half of the remaining content directly involves her. So she is actually only the focal point for a small portion of the 231 page count.

In fact, the viewpoint moves around so much in this volume that no single character has the predominant viewpoint; even Asuna and Alice are splitting time with each other once the two are finally in a scene together. By conservative counting there are at least 15 different characters who have the viewpoint at one time or another, which would make this feel like a collection of short stories if the storytelling was not perfectly contiguous. Reki Kawahara explains in the Afterword that this was a product of him switching to a “third-person-omniscient” writing approach for this volume, and for the most part he pulls it off. The approach definitely allows for much greater character development (even if some of that development falls into the shonen action trap of developing character viewpoints/backgrounds right before they die) and gives a much richer view of what is going on around the battlefield and why. The biggest and most interesting impact of this involves the pugilists, which are somewhat similar to fantasy RPG monks but coming at martial arts disciplines from a wholly different angle, but it also helps in seeing where even normally-disposable goblins and orcs are coming from. Looks at assorted Integrity Knights also fleshes out their individuality much better.

The downside to this is watering down the involvement of the pivotal cast members, including Alice. Kirito is also still catatonic throughout, though he is very definitely at the heart of the bulk of what transpires from the time Asuna appears on. In fact, for all of the shifting viewpoints, that is the first time where the story gets a bit messy, in large part because it is also the point where female characters start squabbling over Kirito. Alice may not exactly be romantically in love with Kirito, but she is definitely emotionally invested enough to see Asuna as a threat, and the feeling is mutual. For all of the female attention that Kirito has gotten over the course of the franchise, this is the first time that two young women have literally come to blows over him. The cattiness between the two makes perfect characterization sense, as this is the first time that either of them has encountered a potential rival who can match her in physical beauty, skill, and strength of spirit, but that doesn't prevent that whole segment of the story from recapturing the “Kirito is a harem lead” feel that it has occasionally achieved in the past. This part also even sees the return of a female character who has not appeared since early in the story.

The late story developments also take some quite interesting turns, including an intriguing suggestion that there might be more SAO survivors than just Kirito and Asuna in this scenario. The big final twist about how the Underworld battlefield is going to radically change is no less intriguing, as it solves one long-standing problem with this arc and spins events in a direction whose exact play-out is going to be hard to predict. I had been wondering how the story was going to milk its current scheme for two more full volumes, and that ending twist answers that question. It also suggests that one anime-original scene in the first half of the anime version may have, in part, been included as a distant set-up for when this twist gets animated.

Technical merits for the series are the same as ever, as is the writing quality. abec's illustrations seem a step better than normal, with the chibi back cover picture being one of my favorites of the franchise to date. In addition to the glossy art pages at the front and the Afterword at the back, an organizational chart for the battle at End Mountains is also included.

While maybe not one of my favorite volumes of the series, Alicization Exploding is aptly-named and does its job well. Despite the lack of predominant focus on main characters, franchise fans are unlikely to be disappointed with what they get here.

Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B

+ Smoothly cycles through many viewpoints, greatly fleshes out the setting, Asuna is back in the game, great plot twist at the end
Some parts approach eye-rolling levels of harem sentimentality

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Production Info:
Story: Reki Kawahara
Licensed by: Yen Press

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